The Texas House, sharply divided along party lines, gave its final approval Friday to legislation making sweeping changes to the state’s election and voting laws, giving Republican leaders a delayed victory on a priority issue.
Senate Bill 1, approved 80-41 with 21 Democrats choosing not to participate, heads back to the Senate for action expected to take place Sunday.
If senators approve the changes made by the House, SB 1 would go to Gov. Greg Abbott, who made its passage a priority and who said he is looking forward to signing it into law.
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Friday’s House vote was a milestone in a fight that has cleaved the Texas Legislature along partisan lines, inspiring a walkout by House Democrats that drew national attention, scuttled the first 30-day special session in July and threatened to derail the second, and current, overtime session.
The Democratic bloc cracked last week, however, when enough members of the minority party trickled back to Austin, providing a quorum that allowed the House to resume business.
And one of Republicans’ first orders of business was passing SB 1, saying it would bolster election integrity by increasing oversight and creating new crimes or stiffer penalties related to election fraud.
The bill also would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, add identification requirements to mail-in ballots and protect partisan poll watchers’ ability to observe polling places and vote-counting operations.
“This bill will go a long way in ensuring the integrity of our elections,” said Rep. Jim Murphy, head of the House Republican Caucus, repeating the GOP mantra that SB 1 will “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
Texas elections bill was near party-line vote
Friday’s vote saw only one representative cross party lines — Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who voted against SB 1.
All 40 Democrats who were present Friday voted against the bill, with several saying efforts should focus on improving voter access with such initiatives as online or election day voter registration.
Instead, Republicans squandered an opportunity by focusing on restrictions that will have a disproportionate impact on voters of color, said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, one of nine Democrats to speak against SB 1 to close Friday’s debate.
The bill, Turner said, was inspired by the “big lie” that President Donald Trump was denied a second term because of widespread election fraud, a conspiracy theory unleashing a toxic and dangerous threat to democracy.
“He and other Republicans whipped their base into a frenzy with crazy conspiracies about election fraud,” Turner said.
“This bill was never about election security or voter integrity. It was always about using the big lie to justify restricting access to the ballot box,” he said.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, a Black woman who recalled having to pay a poll tax to vote when she was young, said SB 1 was a continuation of an attack on the right to vote for nonwhite citizens.
“If you think you are winning today by the things that you’re putting in this bill, let me give you a prophetic statement. You will reap what you sow,” Thompson told Republicans. “It will be sooner than you think.”
Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, used Friday’s vote to call for congressional action to protect voting rights nationwide, saying SB 1 is slated to become law 91 days after the special session ends.
“We have 90 days to act,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”
‘We’ll see you at the polls’
But the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, said SB 1 was the product of more than 35 hours of House debate between the regular session that ended in May and two special sessions.
“We all strive for improvement, and I believe that’s what we’re looking at with this legislation, is improving the Election Code of Texas,” Murr said, his voice scratchy from almost 13 hours of debate Thursday over SB 1.
Moments before the House took its final vote on SB 1, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, engaged Murr in a back-and-forth discussion on the House floor.
“Do you think there’s fraud in Texas elections?” Dutton asked.
“Generally speaking, I think there is always a likelihood of fraud,” Murr replied. “We have seen past examples of fraud.”
Dutton ended with an acknowledgement that the fight over SB 1 was almost over, but he said a larger fight is looming: “We’re going to go vote, and so we’ll see you at the polls.”
If the Senate, which passed SB 1 on Aug. 12, declines to accept changes made by the House, a conference committee would be formed to negotiate a final version that would have to be approved by both chambers.
The bill’s author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said Friday that he will determine the next step after studying House changes.